Epicureanism in practice

My wife and I qualify for being in the “vulnerable” section of the population, owing to our ages.  Over the last two or three days, kind neighbors have come to our front door and have offered to run any errands we need in order to avoid us endangering ourselves in crowded food stores and long payment lines.

Isn’t that wonderful and heart-warning ? Community solidarity and caring for others!

The reality, in a large city, is that ownership of houses in our neighborhood changes rapidly, and we have lost track of exactly who some of our neighbors are. We do, of course, know the people who have come to our door, and bless them for that!  Party politics are being ignored in the cause of common good.  May this caring spirit continue and expand everywhere!

Half of UK 10-year-olds own a smartphone

Fifty per cent of the UK’s 10-year-olds owned a smartphone in 2019, according to a report by media regulator Ofcom.   The number of young phone owners doubled between the ages of nine and 10, which Ofcom dubbed “the age of digital independence”.  In addition, 24% of 3 and 4-year-olds had their own tablet, and 15% of them were allowed to take it to bed ( oh, dear! Ed)

Ofcom’s annual report looks at the media habits of children, and the types of devices they are using. The 2019 study was based on more than 3,200 interviews with children and parents around the UK.   Among other things, it found that more older children were using social media to express their support for social causes and organisations, with 18% having shared or commented on a post, and one in ten having signed an online petition. (which is great! Ed)

Other key findings for 2019 included:

  • 48% of girls aged 5-15 played online games, compared with 71% of boys. Boys spent twice as long playing, clocking up 14.5 hours per week, compared with 7.5 for girls
  • Snapchat and Facebook remained the most popular social media platforms of older children, but 62% were also using WhatsApp (up from 43% in 2018)
  • 99% of children aged 5-15 used a TV set, 27% used a smart speaker and 22% used a radio
  • 80% of the children in the report watched video-on-demand, and 25% watched no live broadcast TV at all. One nine-year-old girl told researchers: “I don’t really like the TV because you can’t pick what channels are on it”.

Ofcom also interviewed parents about their concerns. It found that 45% of parents thought the benefits of children using the internet outweighed the risks, but there was an increase the number of parents who worry about young people seeing hateful content online and material that might lead children to self-harm.

Just under half (47%) of the parents spoken to were worried about pressure to spend money within games, especially on loot boxes, where the reward is not clear before purchase. And 87% of parents with children aged between 5 and 15  had sought advice about how to keep them safe online, and there are many  more conversations about staying safe online across the country. ( An edited version of an article by Zoe KleinmanTechnology reporter, BBC News)

My comment:  I fear that these phones are often a parental cop-out; that is, you give them this “toy” to keep them quiet and occupied, but the question is what are are really seeing on these websites, and how is it affecting their confidence and self-image, not to mention  their view of the adult world?
For a start Snapchat, Facebook , Whatsapp and the rest should be held to account for all sleazy content, violence, threats, grooming and exploitation.  If they can’t police their offering they should get a proper jobs!  I think this situation is very unhealthy, mentally and physically , too – they should be doing less sedentary activities.

 

Can planting trees save civilization?

12055345767968669487.jpgRecently, the World Economic Forum launched 1t.org, a plan to plant a trillion trees. Even Donald Trump, who has withdrawn the US from the Paris agreement, has backed the initiative.

But can trees store enough carbon to buy us time to act on climate change?

A recent paper said 0.9 billion hectares could lock up 205 gigatonnes of CO2. Including land-use change, such as forests being cleared for farming, but the research was criticized because some think the research makes it seem like trees can do more than they can, exaggerates the amount of usable there is, and how much carbon could be stored. In response. A more feasible amount of CO2, it is claimed, could be 3 to 4 gigatonnes a year.

However, the research has prodded Shell Oil  to spend $300m over 3 years on re-afforestation to generate carbon credits for itself and others.  Whether this can make a real dent in climate change is another matter.  Emissions have to be cut as well, and  trees have to be planted at the right place and time. The species also have to be suitable for the climate and the soil where they are planted.  The subject is very complicated owing to the huge variety of, say, oaks, birches and other species.

In  order to lock up CO2 for centuries local people have to support the effort, understand the value of trees, have a say when and where the trees are planted,  and protect the trees once they are planted.   There is an idea that there is lots of underused land, which is a myth.

Lastly, if the CO2 locked away is to be accounted for properly, we will need to monitor reforestation for a long time. That is tricky. Deforestation is easy to spot – satellites show areas turning from green to brown. But they find it hard to detect new trees, which for the first few years will be tiny saplings hard to discern from space. Higher resolution images may help.

Meanwhile de-forestation is getting worse. Between 2014 and 2018 the world has lost forests the size of the whole UK , especially in the Amazon and Australia  (Adapted from an article New Scientist 29 Feb 2020).

My comment: We are talking about nothing other than mankind’s continued peaceful and pleasant life of the planet, because there is no other suitable nearby planet to evacuate to.  There are far too many people who claim this is all a lefty, made-up fuss, just as corona virus is a “short interlude” and will be over when the weather warms. How do we get our neighbours on the same page for the sake of our children and grandchildren?  Repeated storms, fires, and medical emergencies beckon.

Testing for the corona virus: my experience

I returned with my wife by air from Florida, coughing a bit and feeling unwell and having sat next to an oriental gentleman who boarded the plane wearing an elaborate mask – then took it off ( I have no evidence that he was sick, but it spooked me nonetheless).

Two days later I was due to attend physical therapy at the local hospital.  On entering the hospital I was greeted by a member of staff.  Spontaneously, without thinking (but feeling weak, disoriented and generally lousy)  I asked whether the hospital was now testing for the corona virus.  Better safe than sorry, I thought, but realizing It could be a total red herring.   The staff member personally accompanied me to the appropriate department, where I was seen by a doctor ten minutes later.

After about 15 minutes a nurse then came in and inserted a probe up my nostrils as far as it would go, twice.  I was very painful and unexpected. She told me she needed samples, one for pneumonia and influenza (results almost immediate), and the second for the corona virus.  The nurse told me that everyone cried out – the quick procedure is very uncomfortable.

Later that afternoon the doctor herself phoned me at home to say I was clear of pneumonia and flu, and was to return home and self- pisolate as if I actually had the virus.

That was this on Tuesday.  Yesterday, Thursday, the doctor phoned to say I had no sign of the corona virus.

I tell this story just so that you know how the medics proceed, but also to praise the amazing, polite, quick and efficient service. Part of the quick response was probably owing to my age, but I am still quietly astonished, given all the adverse commentary.  The national system might freaky, but in this case I cannot praise the system enough.

The 20-second hand wash

All my other drafts are a bit anodyne at the moment, whereas you, dear reader, are undoubtedly tuned in The Virus.  I thought the following was quite useful, and I haven’t seen it in detail elsewhere: The way to wash your hands.

”Many people don’t wash their hands correctly. They may think 10 seconds is enough. No. They may just rub a little soap between the palms and ignore other parts of the hand. And if you do a slipshod job, the coronavirus pathogens will still be on your hands when you’re done. And if you touch your hands to your face — as humans do about 200 times a day — those pathogens can infect you via eyes, nose or mouth.

”It doesn’t matter whether the water is warm or cold, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains on its website. And antibacterial soap works just as well as regular soap. But running water is key, since standing water could be contaminated.

”You need to clean the areas between your fingers, as well as your thumb and the backs of your hands, Dr. Mark Gendreau,  the chief medical officer at Beverly Hospital in Massachusetts, told NPR:  Scratch your palms in order “to scrub the fingertips and to get some soap under the initial part of the nail,” he adds.

”Wash for at least 20 seconds — singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice or the alphabet song at a reasonable pace will usually get you to that benchmark. (Maxwell Posner & Elena Renken, NPR News, March 7, 2020).

If you feel like singing at all.

Corruption in Eastern Europe

The EU is turning a blind eye to a giant “scam” in eastern Europe, says The New York Times. Hungary’s nationalist PM, Viktor Orbán, was the first to spot the opportunity: his government sold huge tracts of state-owned land to oligarchs and political allies, ensuring their support by enabling them to claim vast sums in EU agricultural subsidies each year. It’s “galling” that Orbán blames the EU for “every imagined indignity” while “milking billions” to prop up his illiberal rule. Across the region, these subsidies have become “a lavish slush fund for political insiders”.

Companies owned by the Czech PM Andrej Babiš pocketed $42m from farm subsidies last year; in Bulgaria, just 100 “land barons” picked up 75% of the country’s agricultural subsidies in 2016; in Slovakia, an “agricultural Mafia” has pushed small farmers off their land.

What really grates is that EU bureaucrats know all about these practices, but won’t act. They believe interfering with subsidies provided under the Common Agricultural Policy would be seen as infringing on national sovereignty. Unfortunately, this approach has failed to stop the corrupt and powerful enriching themselves with public money.   (The New York Times)

My comment: This is not news and is not confined to Eastern Europe.  Rich Brits are doing exactly the same thing.  Mr.Rees-Mogg, an ardent Brexiteer, prominent Tory and very rich, owns huge country estates and claims off the very organization (the EU) that he effects to despise.  Having made a fortune he has “had his meal”, is sated in profit and is happy to leave the EU.  Be sure, nonetheless,  that the British government will continue to reward him and other large landowners, as before.  All this is horrendously unEpicurean.  Corruption always is.

Rules of life

Question:

”I’m in my late 20s and I’m feeling more and more constrained by rules. From the endless signs that tell me to ‘stand on the right’ on escalators or ‘skateboarding forbidden’ in public places to all those unwritten societal rules such as the expectation that I should settle down, buy a house and have a family. Do we really need all these rules, why should I follow them and what would happen if we all ignored them?” Will, 28, London.

Answer:

We all feel the oppressive presence of rules, both written and unwritten – it’s practically a rule of life. Public spaces, organisations, dinner parties, even relationships and casual conversations are rife with regulations and red tape that seemingly are there to dictate our every move. We rail against rules being an affront to our freedom, and argue that they’re “there to be broken”.

But as a behavioural scientist I believe that it is not really rules, norms and customs in general that are the problem – but the unjustified ones. The tricky and important bit, perhaps, is establishing the difference between the two.

A good place to start is to imagine life in a world without rules. Apart from our bodies following some very strict and complex biological laws, without which we’d all be doomed, the very words I’m writing now follow the rules of English. In Byronic moments of artistic individualism, I might dreamily think of liberating myself from them. But would this new linguistic freedom really do me any good or set my thoughts free?  (from “Life’s Big Questions”, answered by the BBC’s “The Conversation”).

My comment:   Written and unwritten rules are what allow us all to live together, however uneasily, without constant bickering and even violence.  Just as generosity, politeness and consideration – Epicurean virtues – grease the wheels of human interaction, so do rules, such as the side of the road you drive on (to be rather obvious), and thanking people who kindly help us (not always so obvious)  – these allow us to conduct our daily lives as seamlessly as possible, without constant bickering and raised blood pressure.  I’m glad there is a rule that jails those who cheat and steal things that don’t belong to them.

We should be glad to have the rules, inconvenient though some may be.  Does the reader have any rules he or she cherishes – or heartily dislikes?

Gender bias

 Almost 90% of people are biased against women, according to a new index that highlights the “shocking” global backlash to gender equality.  The UN Development Programme (UNDP), which produced the findings, is calling on governments to introduce legislation and policies that address engrained prejudice. Despite progress in closing the equality gap, 91% of men and 86% of women hold at least one bias against women regarding politics, economics, education, violence or reproductive rights. It found that almost half of people feel men are superior political leaders and more than 40% believe men make better business executives. (Guardian, 4 March 2020).

No one purporting to follow the ideas of Epicurus should be gender- biased.  Period.  As for men being better political leaders and business executives, that is total nonsense.

But by coincidence I was having a conversation with my wife about the difficulties of trying to run a business employing roughly 50-50 men and women, something I know about personally (now history).  We had a policy of giving three weeks paid sick leave a year to all employees, full of part-time.  We were always stretched, and if anyone was away sick, their work had to be done by someone, adding to the stress.  (I remember confronting one female employees who took her precise three weeks paid sickness allowance every year, and who told me to my face that it was “part of her holiday entitlement”. This was cheeky and ridiculous, but nothing to do with gender).

What was more troublesome was that the women were constantly staying away from work because children were on holiday or were sick, or some older relative needed their help.   This was a daily event for one employee or other.  Who will it be today?   (They also had more genuine sickness absences, although that was not their fault.)

I realize that society still expects women to be the nurturers and home keepers, and that makes doing a full- time job difficult to navigate.  But constant absences are also resented by the people in the company who have to fill in for them.  Because this resentment, if openly expressed, sounds mean and petty, most people grumbled to themselves and sighed.  But it is a problem feminist activists and elevated employees on the UNDP do not address and can be a real human problem.  It was regarded as unfair on women and men who had no children or elderly relatives.  I resented it myself, to be honest.

Missing winters of old

“There is something depressing about a mild winter. Frosts in the Berkshire countryside have been late this year and gone by lunchtime. Unless something changes soon, the brazen, early growth of trees and flowers will actually be perfectly all right and spring will be here before we know it. The absence of a true season is unsettling to a psychological clock set by weeks of biting frost and bare branches. In my childhood winters, we had to spend half an hour defrosting our toes after morning outings. What is the point of a roaring fire or a hot water bottle now, when the worst natural hazard of the morning is an unusually big puddle?” (Juliet Samuel in The Daily Telegraph)

My take:   Get used to it.  It gets warmer and warmer from now on, accompanied by floods and massive rainfalls. But you can always buy a canoe or blame the change of seasons on the EU.

Strange, though, that the writer comments in the pages of the Daily Telegraph, one of several publications that cater to elderly climate change deniers and wistful supporters of the restoration of the British Empire.  Free of Brussels (I thought) snowflakes on kittens and warm woolen mittens would once again be the order of the winter day, and everything would return to how it was when we were young. Or that is what we were told.   Never mind, very soon Brits will have brand new passports with blue, instead of red, covers.  So that is something to look forward to.

(Note to the literal-minded: the above is written tongue in cheek).

How Democracy Ends, Not With a Bang But With a Whimper

“In this fast-paced century, rife with technological innovation, we’ve grown accustomed to the impermanence of things. Whatever is here now will likely someday vanish, possibly sooner than we imagine. Movies and music that once played on our VCRs and stereos have given way to infinite choices in the cloud. Cash currency is fast becoming a thing of the past. Cars will soon be self-driving. Stores where you could touch and feel your purchases now lie empty as online shopping sucks up our retail attention.

“The ever-more-fleeting nature of our physical world has been propelled in the name of efficiency, access to ever more information, and improvement in the quality of life. Lately, however, a new form of impermanence has entered our American world, this time in the political realm, and it has arrived not gift-wrapped as progress but unpackaged as a profound setback for all to see. Longstanding democratic institutions, processes, and ideals are falling by the wayside at a daunting rate and what’s happening is often barely noticed or disparaged as nothing but a set of passing problems. Viewed as a whole, however, such changes suggest that we’re watching democracy disappear, bit by bit.” (Karen Greenberg in Tom Dispatch.com)

The conundrum:  Epicurus told us to ignore the political world.   One tries to, and this blog tries to  avoid party politics.  But how can one achieve, let alone maintain, ataraxia when the institutions and constitutional arrangements one took for granted and are there for our mutual benefit, are being casually overturned by people who have sworn to uphold them?  Soon it could be our ability to speak openly and publicly about our views.  Then we will ask one another, “What happened?”  The polis in the days of Epicurus was robust; ours are not .  We should be fearful indeed.

 

Racial replacement?

“The middle-aged man who shot dead nine people in two shisha bars in Germany last week appears to have been motivated by a hate-filled ideology. Tobias Rathjen subscribed to the idea of the “great replacement”, which argues that white Europeans are being “replaced” by an “invasion” of brown and black people.  At this point, the tendency is to say that such ideas have no place in our society and must be stamped out. And rightly so, when they lead to racist attacks. But an uncomfortable truth is that it is not only extremists who are worried about racial change. My hunch is that this is an anxiety harboured by millions of ordinary Europeans, who have seen a huge growth in immigrant populations over a very short period. In Spain, for instance, the proportion of people born abroad has gone from 3% in 2000 to 14% today. No replacement is going on; it’s more of a mingling. But if we don’t want anxieties to fester into strife, we should acknowledge this change, and be allowed to discuss it.” (Juliet Samuel,  The Daily Telegraph and The Week, 28 Feb 2020)

My take: In the 1670s my family arrived in London from Sedan in Eastern France, Huguenots fleeing religious intolerance.  There were tens of thousands of these Protestants, and grave disquiet about them among London’s cockneys, who called them “ Frogs”.   Was London being turned French?  Two generations later nobody was thinking twice about it.  The French quickly adopted British ways and made a huge contribution to the country in the arts, military, the silk industry and so on.

Fast forward and I am now writing this in Florida, which has a huge Latino population. Some people are from Cuba.  Others are from Central and South America and from Puerto Rico, which is a territory of the United States. Talk to any of them at random, and you really can’t tell them apart from ordinary Americans, aside maybe from an accent.  They love the country and simply want a good job and opportunities for their children.  In 27 years I have yet to meet anyone wanting a political “takeover” of the United States.  Indeed, they want to fit in and make a positive contribution.  Moreover, most countries need these people – to do jobs that no one else wants to do, to be frank.  In two generations………….

I think the people who write in the Daily Telegraph have unnecessary concerns, but, given its take on other issues, it doesn’t surprise me.  Epicurus accepted a very wide variety of people, including slaves and women. So should we.

Dismal statistic

Almost half the airline flights taken by British men aged 20 to 45 last year were for stag do’s, while 35% of those taken by women in that age group were for hen parties. The environmental charity Hubbub, which published the figures, urged the public to save money, and CO2, by partying closer to home. (TheWeek 28 Feb 2020).

We are talking here about the generation that is, or ought to be, most concerned about the environment and climate change.  I think it should now be a consensus that fouling the air we breathe by taking plane rides all over the place for two or three days of celebration is no longer acceptable.  If you want to get blind drunk and make out with a girlfriend of the bride, it can be just as much fun to do so nearer home, less expensive and less harmful to the planet.

Epicurus was big on moderation.  There is nothing moderate, I suspect , in this modern fashion of marking the wedding of a friend.  Call me a prude if you will.  I don’t care!  But I do care about the planet I am leaving to my grandchildren.

 

Negotiating in bad faith? Who is?

The EU’s negotiating tactics are shockingly “dishonest”, said Daniel Hannan in The Sunday Telegraph, a very right-wing publication.  For three years, Brussels’ negotiators have refused to consider British proposals for a bespoke Brexit deal, on the grounds that that meant “cherry-picking”.  Michel Barnier has maintained that, if the UK didn’t want to keep free movement or stay in the customs union, its only option was a free-trade agreement like that struck with Canada. Fine then, said Boris Johnson, when he took over: “Canada it is.” But now, with trade talks set to begin in earnest next week, Eurocrats have “shamelessly” backtracked: Canada suddenly isn’t available.

Actually, when they said Canada, what they meant was, “Canada plus an obligation to let Brussels set some of your rules in perpetuity” – over state subsidies, and employment, welfare and environmental standards. Which would undermine the whole point of Brexit.

Arguably, it’s Britain that’s being disingenuous, said Sebastian Payne in the Financial Times. The EU has always been clear that the UK cannot have exactly the same deal as Canada because of its proximity to the bloc, and the volume of trade between the two. Understandably enough, it doesn’t want a big competitor with an unfair advantage on its doorstep. The EU and the UK have already made firm commitments on such a “level playing field”, in the “joint political declaration” signed last October. The British position is a “fantasy”, said Will Hutton in The Observer. No state has total freedom to make its own laws. The closer the trade deal, the greater the need for “common rules”.

An abyss is yawning between the two sides, and disagreement about what a “level playing field” means is only the start of it. The EU also wants any trade deal to be dependent on allowing EU fleets continued access to British waters. Britain, for its part, wants its services industries to be given privileged access to Europe. Additionally, the EU wants the return of “unlawfully removed cultural objects” – thought to be a reference to the Elgin Marbles.

In short, it seems likely that “the talks will blow up shortly”, said James Forsyth in The Spectator, and sooner rather than later. “It is only once the two sides have realised just how far apart they really are, that the serious negotiations can begin.” (The Week  22 Feb 2020) 

My comment: Putin, whose fingerprints (and roubles) are all over Brexit and who wants nothing less than the break-up of the EU, must be watching all this with huge enjoyment, a massive grin on his face.  He may be unlikeable, but you have to credit him with being ten times smarter than anyone in the British government ( plus it’s supporters).

Why has this anything to do with Epicureanism?  Because a giant cloud hovers over the future of nothing less than the United Kingdom itself.  What a mess!  Any sentient being, observing this mess has a deficit of peace of mind, and no faith at all in those who are dictating the future.

Oh, and by the way,  the Elgin Marbles are glorious, but cleverly worked reproductions to fill the huge hall at the British Museum could be made indistinguishable from the originals.  I suggest Barnier is requested to pay for replicas, which, yes, should be in Athens.

 

The President’s teeth

Mount Vernon, Virginia

“A souvenir model of George Washington’s dentures has been withdrawn from sale at his Mount Vernon estate because of evidence that the real version included teeth pulled from the mouths of his slaves.

“According to popular myth, the false teeth worn by America’s founding father were made from wood. In fact, they were made from ivory and human teeth, at least some of which came from enslaved people. Washington’s own accounts reveal that in 1784, he paid six pounds and two shillings for nine teeth taken from “negroes”. This has been known for some time, but has received fresh attention due to the publication of a revisionist biography, which documents Washington’s mistreatment of the slaves at Mount Vernon”.  (The Week, 28 Feb 2020).

When you reflect on the lives of George Washington and Good King George III of England you have to wonder why the colonists chose to rebel.  All King George wanted was a contribution towards the cost, to the British alone, of the war with France that was necessary to defend the colonies.  The colonists wanted this protection totally free!  They seem to have thought this totally reasonable, although it wasn’t to many others. And now you have the future President Washington (very unpopular in that role, incidentally), yanking teeth out of the mouths of his slaves.  This is what the British taxpayer was apparently fighting for the freedom to do.

No one else is going to defend the understandable policies of the Good King , so I have chosen myself to do so, defying slander and contempt!

(Note to those of a serious frame of mind: this is a joke.  Sort of)

The truth about Dutch resistance to the Nazis

“It is high time our country showed contrition for its failure to protect Jews in the Second World War.

“In a historic apology, Dutch. Prime Minister Mark Rutte finally acknowledged that too many Dutch officials supinely obeyed Nazi orders after their country was occupied. In total, 102,000 of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust came from the Netherlands; survivors later told “heart-breaking” stories about the distrust and disbelief they experienced on their return home.

“In the years after the War, the Dutch fostered an image of themselves as a “stubborn” people who defied their occupiers by harbouring Jews – most notably the family of Anne Frank, who hid for two years before being sent to their deaths – in concealed rooms. These examples, while “all very good and moving”, present a false image. In reality, the Netherlands was far less heroic. The population was actually “reasonably accommodating” to their Nazi occupiers; most people remained silent, while others even helped the Nazis with their “terrible work”. For years afterwards the Dutch made excuses for themselves (“We didn’t have it easy either”). Rutte’s apology was “courageous” – but it was one his predecessors should have made nearly 75 years earlier”.   (Trouw, Amsterdam)

My comment: This has nothing to do with the Jews, but I once asked my mother what she would have done had the Nazis succeeded in invading Britain. Would she have resisted or cooperated?  She replied,  “I had two, very little, children and your father was away, with the RAF, for most of the six years of the war.  I was alone. What do you think?  Of course, the children came first. I would have done literally anything at all to protect the two of you”.

I always admired my mother’s straightforward honesty.  No heroics for her. But we are so used to movies and books about the selfless resistance  throughout Europe (by everyone!) that the truth is a bit jarring, but very believable – and in this instance understandable. It’s easy to criticize the Dutch at this distance in time.  A bit of imagination would not go amiss.

Failing to face the reality of an ageing society

You’d never have guessed it from the recent election campaigns, but Britain has a major problem with its pensions.  

It’s this: as the U.K. population ages, the state pensions of ever more retirees are having to be financed by ever fewer people in work. Hence the sensible plans to raise the pensionable age for both sexes to 66 in 2020 and 67 by 2028. Such ongoing reform is crucial, but now we’re no longer enjoying rapid leaps in life expectancy – the average life expectancy has almost stalled at just above 79 for men and just below 83 for women – the political parties seem increasingly disinclined to tackle the huge economic problems thrown up by demographic change.  Surprise, surprise!

During the recent  election, for example, Labour pledged the state pension age would never rise above 66, and also made an unfunded commitment of up to £58bn to “compensate” all those women who’d lost out in the recent equalisation between the sexes of the state pension age. The UK simply can’t afford such largesse. The bottom line is we’re living longer, and the retirement age is still too low. This is a problem that isn’t going away.  (Oliver Kamm,  The Times, Dec 2019).

It is also a problem faced by numerous governments (among economically advanced countries , anyway).  The principle of a state pension is a decent, civilized idea, especially for those who have earned low incomes and have not had enough income to save for retirement.  But in some ways it is over-generous.  For instance, if you are a foreigner and marry an American citizen in mid- life you get social security payments (albeit very modest in size) even if you never had a job in the US.  Surprising things like this suggest the need for a review of the system.

On the other hand, the idea of a state pension is something that offers peace of mind and some reassurance that you will not ( should not) be homeless and poverty- stricken.  It is thus  Epicurean in spirit and to be supported.

 

On the coronavirus

 

The Word from Wuhan Wang Xiuying:  a comment from China
“There are endless ‘rumours’ out there to be dispelled. One day we’re told that children are less likely to be infected, the next day that pregnant women and children are more susceptible. One day they say the virus can’t survive outside the body, the next that it can live on hard surfaces for up to five days.
“One day we learn that the virus is capable of aerosol transmission via coughing or sneezing, the next day we’re told that’s not something to worry about. According to one piece of advice – perhaps issued on the basis that people can’t live on bad news alone – the chances of infection may be reduced by the moderate consumption of alcohol.”
Authoritarian regimes try to justify themselves, in part, by claiming that, without the drawback of multiple points of view and messy democracy, they can spring into action in the event of a crisis and deal with it quickly and efficiently. One man’s “superior” judgment trumps that of multiple “experts”, they claim.
We are now seeing how laughable that is.  What we need are prepared and funded experts with viable plans.  Prayer?  Not so much.
I for one a would feel happier, and my peace of mind would remain undisturbed , if I knew that professionals were on the job.

A small step for mankind……

Jeff Bezos is donating $10bn of his personal wealth to help “save Earth”. The Amazon chief executive said he would fund “any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world”.  (The Week 21 Feb 2020)

On this blog I have, for what it’s worth, criticized the richest man in the world for doing little or nothing for charity, something most Americans are incredibly generous about.

It is appropriate for followers of Epicurus to be as generous as individually possibly to the poor,  the sick and the disadvantaged.  Protecting the environment qualifies.   It’s nice to note that he has got the message.  Hopefully he won’t stop there.  We need more of his fortune recycled into good causes.

Modern genetics and how they don’t really mean much.

There is a new book called “How to argue with a racist”, by Adam Rutherford.  Writing  at a time when genetic services such as 23 and Me are being used by huge numbers of people, Rutherford points out that the last common ancestor of all people with long-standing European ancestries lived only 600 years ago.  Indeed the experts say that nearly everyone with British ancestry is almost certainly descended from King Edward III.  And every person alive in 10th Century Europe, and who left descendants, is an ancestor of all Europeans alive today.

Ancestry studies show that we are all mongrels and that there is no such thing as “racial purity”.  Every white supremacist and racist has African, Indian, Chinese.,  Native American and even indigenous Australian ancestors of some sort. The idea that small genetic variations in between racial groups have an influence on behavior is totally discredited.  Skin color is the most visible difference between people who are otherwise all remarkably similar, born with a wide variety of capabilities and potential.  Race is a social construct, powerful still and a curse, but something that allows one person to feel superior to someone else.

As for this writer, he claims to be descended from, yes, Edward III, also King Louis XV of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund 1368 – 1437. (a notorious fellow for the ladies, it is said).  This just shows how silly all this is, since is does me no good at all, and you probably don’t believe it anyway.

Extinction

The outlook for wildlife would be grim even if the world wasn’t warming. According to a major report last year, 1 million species could soon be wiped out – a sixth mass extinction.  The main cause at present is the loss of habitat, but over this century the changing climate is expected to push ever more species over the brink.. For many plants and animals, their current habitats will simply get too hot. Many are already moving to stay in their comfort zone. In the oceans, some organisms have shifted their ranges by hundreds of kilometres.

But on land there are few spaces left for animals to relocate to, and those that do exist are highly fragmented, which makes it very hard for wildlife to adapt. In polar regions, the loss of sea ice is posing problems for the polar bear and other animals. In Bangladesh Bengal tigers are clinging on in the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, but by 2070 there might be no suitable habitat left for them.

New protected areas are necessary as the world warms and coasts flood, along with corridors that allow animals to move between such places. But almost nothing is being done about warming in the rich countries, let alone in poorer countries ones.

It’s inevitable that a population crash will happen unless they are able to move. When Defenders of Wildlife, based in Washington DC, analysed official plans for saving 459 animals in the US that could soon go extinct, they found only 18% of the strategies included specific plans to compensate for climate change. The situation is similar elsewhere, such as Australia, and, as for plants, researchers have concluded that some 240 plants are at high risk of going extinct because of climate change. There are no plans at all for saving most of these species.

Why is this? A lack of resources, an inability to believe that things could get as bad as forecast, a reluctance to intervene and a focus on short-term threats such as invasive species? (a precised versión of a article in New Scientist, Jan 4, 2020)

If the planet keeps warming, entire habitats could disappear along with all the species that rely on them.   Examples? Most coral reefs, the Emperor penguin and the entire  Amazon rainforest.   Limiting global warming is essential.  Denial is an irresponsible cop-out.

Falling in love

“I have recently fallen head over heels in love, but my cynical friends keep telling me that love is nothing but a cocktail of pheromones, dopamine and oxytocin, and that these wear off after a couple of years. The thought scares me, it makes the whole thing seem meaningless. Is love really just brain chemistry?”  – Jo, London.

.The essence of love, at least of passionate, romantic love, is revealed in its very grammar. We “fall” in love, not “wander” into it.  We fall “head over heels”, often at “first sight” rather than on careful inspection. We fall in love, “madly, blind” to the other’s vices, not in rational appraisal of their virtues.

Romantic love is overwhelming, irresistible, ballistic. It is in control of us more than we are ever in control of it. In one sense a mystery, it is in another pure simplicity – its course, once engaged, predictable and inevitable, and its cultural expression more or less uniform across time and space. The impulse to think of it in terms of simple causes precedes science. Consider the arrow of Cupid, the potion of a sorcerer – love seems elemental.

Yet love is not easily conquered by science.  Sex pheromones, chemicals designed to broadcast reproductive availability to others, are often quoted as key instruments of attraction.  It is an appealing idea. But while pheromones play an important role in insect communication, there is very little evidence that they even exist in humans.

But if a chemical can signal attraction outside the body, why not inside it? The neuropeptide oxytocin, often inaccurately described as a “bonding hormone” and known for its role in lactation and uterine contraction, is the leading candidate here. This has been extensively studied, mainly in the prairie vole whose monogamy and public displays of affection make it an ideal model.  Blocking oxytocin disrupts the pair bonding that here is a surrogate for love, and makes the voles more restrained in their emotional expressions. Conversely, inducing an excess of oxytocin in other, non-monogamous vole species blunts their taste for sexual adventure. In humans, though, the effects are much less dramatic – a subtle change in the romantic preference for the familiar over the new. So oxytocin is far from proven to be essential to love.

Of course, even if we could identify such a substance, any message – chemical or otherwise – needs a recipient. So where is the letterbox of love in the brain? And how is the identity of the “chosen one” conveyed, given that no single molecule could possibly encode it?

When romantic love is examined with imaging of the brain, the areas that “light up” overlap with those supporting reward-seeking and goal-oriented behaviour. But that parts of our brains are set ablaze by one thing does not tell us much if they are just as excited by a very different, other thing. And the observed patterns of romantic love are not that different from those of maternal bonding, or even from the love of one’s favourite football team.  So we can only conclude that neuroscience is yet to explain this “head over heels” emotion in neural terms.

Do we simply need more experiments? Yes, is usually the scientist’s answer, but this assumes love is simple enough to be captured by a mechanistic description. Each reproductive decision can be neither simple nor uniform, for we cannot be allowed to be guided by any single characteristic, let alone the same one. Universally attractive though tallness might be, if biology allowed us to select on height alone we would all be gigantic by now. And if the decisions have to be complex, so must the neural apparatus that makes them possible.

While this explains why romantic attraction must be complex, it doesn’t explain why it can feel so instinctual and spontaneous.  Wouldn’t a cool, detached rationality be better? The answer is “no”.  Rationality evolved later that our instincts and allows us to detach ourselves from the grounds for a decision so that others can record, understand and apply it independently of us.  

Nor is instinct ”simple”and inferior to careful deliberation. It is actually more sophisticated than rational analysis, for it brings into play a wider array of factors than we could ever hold simultaneously in our conscious minds. The truth of this stares us in the face: think how much better we are at recognising a face compared with describing it. Why should the recognition of love be any different?

Ultimately, if the neural mechanisms of love were simple, you should be able to induce it with an injection, to extinguish it with a scalpel while leaving everything else intact. The cold, hard logic of evolutionary biology makes this impossible. Were love not complicated, we would never have evolved in the first place.

That said, love – like all our thoughts, emotions and behaviours – arises from very complex physical processes in the brain.  Yet to say that love is “just” brain chemistry is like saying Romeo and Juliet is “just” words – it misses the point. Like art, love is more than the sum of its parts. It is exhilarating! 

So those of us lucky to experience its chaos should let ourselves be carried by the waves. And if we end up wrecked on the surf-hidden rocks, we can draw comfort from knowing reason would have got us no further. (BBC News Feb 14 2020).

My comment:  To quote the words of a lovely popular love song by Ray Noble: “Love is the sweetest thing.  What else on earth could ever bring such happiness to everything?”

The trouble with the nuclear family

( A bit long, but very important)

In an essay for the Atlantic  – The Nuclear Family was a Mistake — New York Times columnist David Brooks argues that the family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many.  By “nuclear family,” he means a married mother and father and some kids. The alternative arrangement was “the extended family,” which included not only Mom, Dad and the children but also close relatives — cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents — as well as family friends.

 

The great defect of the nuclear family, Brooks asserts, is that if there’s a crisis — a death, divorce, job loss, poor school grades — there’s no backup team. Children are most vulnerable to these disruptions and often are left to fend for themselves. There’s a downward spiral. “In many sectors of society,” Brooks writes, “nuclear families fragmented into single-parent families, [and] single-parent families into chaotic families or no families.”

 

The advent of the birth-control pill encouraged people to have sex outside of marriage. Women’s entrance into the labor market made it easier for them to support themselves. Modern appliances (washing machines, dryers) made housework simpler.

 

As Brooks sees it, almost everyone loses under this system. The affluent can best cope with it, but children have it worst. Brooks cites an avalanche of statistics. In 1960, about 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women. Now that’s about 40 percent. In 1960, about 11 percent of children lived apart from their fathers; in 2010, the figure was 27 percent.

 

Adult men and women also have their share of troubles. There’s a vicious circle involved: “People who grow up in disrupted families have more trouble getting the education they need to have prosperous careers. People who don’t have prosperous careers  may have trouble building stable families. The children in those families become more isolated and more traumatized.”

 

There is little doubt that reversing the breakdown of families, and its consequences, is one of the urgent tasks of social policy in the 21st century. We have been struggling unsuccessfully with it since Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who later became a U.S. senator, warned in the Moynihan Report in  1965 that the breakdown of black marriage rates would have a devastating effect on African Americans’ well-being. The report proved highly controversial, and some branded Moynihan a racist.

 

But there is a problem.  The conditions needed to broach a debate over family policies strike at the heart of Americans’ political and cultural conflicts. Brooks writes:

“We value privacy and individual freedom too much. We want stability and rootedness, but also mobility, dynamic capitalism, and the liberty to adopt the lifestyle we choose.”

 

Brooks finds both liberals and conservatives unequal to the task of dealing candidly with family breakdown. “Social conservatives insist that we can bring the nuclear family back. But the conditions that made for stable nuclear families in the 1950s are never returning. Conservatives have nothing to say to the kid whose dad has split, whose mom has had three other kids with different dads; ‘go live in a nuclear family’ is really not relevant advice.  The majority [of households] are something else: single parents, never-married parents, blended families, grandparent-headed families.” He’s just as tough on progressives. They “still talk like self-expressive individualists of the 1970s: People should have the freedom to pick whatever family form works for them. But many of the new family forms do not work well for most people.”

 

The larger issue is how we judge our times. We are constantly deluged with economic studies and statistics, implying that economic outcomes are the only ones that matter. The national scorecard of well-being should take a much broader view. How well families do in preparing children for adulthood and how well they transmit important values is a much higher standard for success.  (David Brooks, The Atlantic, lightly edited) 

Traffic chaos in the US

The recent death of Kobe Bryant in a helicopter crash wasn’t just a tragedy for his family and for basketball fans.  It was also “a sign of the times”: that even the rich and famous now can’t avoid “the traffic hellscape that American cities have created for their residents”.

Like everyone else in southern California, Bryant was sick of the permanent motorway gridlock that degrades the quality of life there. The average Los Angeles commuter spends 119 hours – about three full work weeks – stuck in traffic each year. And it’s not just LA; the problem is getting worse everywhere. Across the US, the average commuter wastes 54 hours a year in traffic, up from 20 hours in 1982.

Funding for mass transit just hasn’t kept up with population growth. This is why the wealthy, and even the not so wealthy, are increasingly turning to small planes or shelling out $200 for a seat on a chopper to get around. This in turn is leading to dangerously congested airspace over cities – a factor that led air traffic controllers to put Bryant’s helicopter in a holding pattern just before it crashed.

Last year, LA police recorded 236 deaths as a result of traffic accidents on the city’s overcrowded roads; both they and Bryant are “victims of failing public infrastructure”.  (Nicole Gelinas,  New York Post, 15 Feb 2020)

Many years ago the motor car industry, in league with the oil companies ( Henry Ford, Standard Oil and others) poured large sums into pockets of local politicians in order to kill  any idea of investment in mass public transport.  Their campaign was successful; nowadays bus and train are the cinderella’s of transport, and most available money goes to easing the path of car commuters.

When you observe lobbyists today think on the rich people and organizations whose money and political clout prevented a sensible balance of cars, buses and trains all those years ago. What similar people are doing now will impact future generations quite as much as Henry Ford has impacted it.

 

It seems the mafia are everywhere

No doubt the mafia corrupts Italian society, but how do they differ from the huge American corporations who spend fortunes on lobbying, wining and dining politicians, distorting elections with money,  offering inducements  for favorable contracts, cosy regulations and tax concessions?  Why is there no talk of breaking up distorting monopolies?   Epicurus might have had a Greek word for all this – he would have called It a ?????? *

* If you don’t speak Greek – a racket.

Nothing better to do?

British animal rights activists from Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have argued that the term “pet” is derogatory to animals, and should not be used. Instead, they suggest words like “companion”, which is less patronising. Referring to oneself as an owner of a pet “implies that the animals are a possession, like a car, for example”, rather than “their own individual beings”, the charity’s spokesperson said.

My comment:  Last time I looked I couldn’t find a dog, cat or any other companion- type animal who spoke English or who comprehended anything more than maybe the soppy word  “Walkies?” to denote impending exercise.  My point is that animals are not about to demonstrate in the street because they are called “pets”.  Don’t be daft!